McIlroy controls Masters destiny
Golf could be set for a changing of the guard at Augusta on Sunday.
The 21-year-old Rory McIlroy goes into the final round of the Masters with a four-shot lead, poised to become the second youngest winner after Tiger Woods.
To McIlroy's generation, Woods is the icon, the man they watched as kids, the man who changed the sport. They could be about to get their own icon.
The lad from Holywood, Northern Ireland, has spoken this week of how, as a golf-mad seven-year-old sitting with his Dad, he watched mesmerised as Woods won the 1997 Masters by a record 12 shots for his breakthrough major win at 21.
"That's when Tiger sort of grabbed all our imaginations," said McIlroy. "It was a huge moment in the game of golf." Woods was only eight months younger than McIlroy - 22 in May - is now.
But with Woods, 35, who is still not out of it this week, generally at a crossroads in his career; and with defending champion Phil Mickelson seemingly too far back to challenge, a win for McIlroy would not only break their monopoly on the tournament (six wins in the last 10 events between them) but would suggest the game of golf is about to enter a new era, skipping a whole generation of late 20 and 30-somethings still searching for that elusive major title.
"A win for me, personally, it would be huge," said McIlroy. "And for the game of golf, it would be nice, as well. It would be nice to get a major early and show some of the young guys that it is possible."
The giant leaderboards have made happy reading for McIlroy all week
Of course, even if he does win - and before we go any further, four shots is nothing at Augusta so this is all hypothetical - there is no guarantee that he will go on even to be a multiple major winner, never mind craft a career as successful or as long-lived as Woods.
Asked if clinching a wire-to-wire Masters win on Sunday would be comparable to Woods's 1997 victory, McIlroy was quick to play it down.
"Not really. You know, he's done so much more for the game than I ever could or will, breaking down barriers," he said.
But McIlroy has suggested since hitting a 40-yard drive at the age of two, becoming the world's top amateur for a week as a 17-year-old, and carding 68 as an 18-year-old amateur in the first round of the 2007 Open, that he was destined to achieve in professional golf.
Thirds in the last two majors, as well as a win apiece on the European and PGA Tours have taken him to ninth in the world, the second youngest player behind Sergio Garcia to reach the world's top 10.
"He's just a natural talent," said BBC golf commentator Ken Brown. "The first time I saw him was in the Walker Cup in 2007. They were all good but when I came to him I saw balls being hit flush every time out of the centre of the club with such ease. He could shape it and had all the shots - high and low. He's one of the few you would say is naturally gifted - like Sandy Lyle. It's sometimes contrite to say this, because golf takes a lot of work, but some people have certain gifts. He's got it."
He added: "The progression of his career, as a boy golfer, then Walker Cup and in his first couple of years as a pro - including leaving the PGA Tour last year because he didn't like it - he's had a lot of experience playing at the highest level with the best. Just because he's young, some players have never had the experience he's had in 10 years as a pro."
Six-time major champion Nick Faldo told me before Saturday's third round: "He knows he's playing well. He hasn't put a foot wrong. He's relaxed because he knows he's got career ahead of him - he's got 20 more tries, minimum.
"Once you know you're not going to fall off your bike you're not nervous. He knows, 'I'm going to win this one day'. He knows he's special. So I think he has that patience. He might clean up right now. It wouldn't surprise me."
There was much talk before the tournament of how a new breed of young Americans, some from other sporting backgrounds, could be set to take over the game but for the first time ever there are no home players in the top five going into the final round at Augusta.
And if an international player is to win, it would be the first time since 1994 - Jose Maria
Olazabal (Masters), Ernie Els (US Open) and Nick Price (Open, USPGA) - that an American has not held at least one of golf's four major titles. Even without a McIlroy win, with six Europeans in the top 10 in the rankings, the world of golf is definitely tilting on its axis.
Australian Jason Day, McIlroy's partner for the first three rounds, is in a four-way tie for second at eight under and is another young thruster indebted to Woods.
But at the ripe old age of 23, he bemoaned how the top players were getting younger and younger. Japan's rising star Ryo Ishikawa, the world number 45, for example, is just 19, while American Ryder Cup star Rickie Fowler is 22.
"It's unreal," said Day. "It just shows how good coaching is, the science behind the game, and how confident some of these young guys are coming up now, and the better experience they are getting."
He added: "When Tiger came along, everyone turned into athletes. We are not fat slobs anymore."
Of course, there is always an exception and while Argentina's Angel Cabrera may take offence at being called a slob, he is at the other end of the fitness spectrum. Also at eight under the 41-year-old former US Open and Masters champion, along with 40-year-old South Korean KJ Choi, might yet blow all this new era stuff out of the water.
The rest of the players in the top 10 - Charl Schwartzel, 26, Adam Scott, 30, Luke Donald, 33, Bo Van Pelt, 35, Bubba Watson, 32, Ross Fisher, 30 - are hardly young guns either.
There are sub-plots, too - Choi could become the first Asian Masters champion, Australia is still searching for a Masters winner, only Cabrera in the top 10 has won a major, no-one has come from more than eight shots back after 54 holes to win at Augusta...
But the 75th Masters is McIlroy's to lose. Facing the press after the third round he spoke quietly, thoughtfully, respectfully. He seemed aware that he is on the brink of a great achievement but was careful not to get ahead of himself.
"I know how leads can dwindle away very quickly," he said. "I have to go out there, not take anything for granted and play as hard as I've played the last three days."
Brown added: "If he putts half decently he'll win. He's been very sound tee to green, tactically he's been sensible, he's looked comfortable and confident with himself and putted very steadily.
"He had good concentration and didn't get rattled when people got close to him. And with two thirds he's been in the fast lane in majors and knows what's going on.
"But he hasn't got the Green Jacket yet. Any of the leading players could put in a sparkling front nine of 31 or 32 and get right up there in the mix.
"It will be a very pressure-packed day with a lot of expectation from fans, but if he plays his game, and has a good, steady day I will be very surprised if he doesn't win. It's down to not getting nervy on the greens early on and letting the other lads have a sniff."
Augusta is gearing up to crown a new young master on Sunday night.